During his inaugural address, President Biden alluded to a mammoth, intractable task now facing the country: confronting a nascent, violent, far-right insurgency that coalesced behind Trump and the belief that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.
As disorganized and somewhat ridiculous as it is, the movement has put on full display its willingness to be violent in the service of interrupting democratic processes during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The problem only becomes more vexing with the fact that it’s intertwined with a major national figure — now-former president Trump — and one of the country’s two major political parties.
For the Biden administration, it presents a devilish problem: What happens when the never-ending grievance machine of the right gets so disjointed from reality that its adherents both believe themselves subject to an illegitimate government, and when one of the two major political parties benefits from that misconception? How do you counter a violent extremist movement that has its tentacles around one half of the U.S.’s party system?
Standard attempts at countering violent extremism focus on finding a messenger who is credible within the group and focusing on accountability for those who have committed crimes while talking people who are persuadable — and not too far gone — off of the ledge.
“Who is going to talk to them? The one person that would, the [former] president, won’t. He’s going to stoke the anger from the sidelines,” Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Group, told TPM. “How do you assuage grievances that don’t exist?”
The new, unified threat
The Jan. 6 insurrection attempt unleashed a wave of anxiety peculiar to people who study violent extremism. The embers for trends that they’ve seen in other countries — or other, more violent periods in U.S. history — have begun to glow brighter in present-day America.
“Now we’re looking at Trump-motivated extremism, though I don’t know that we have a full term for it,” Ryan Greer, a director at the Anti-Defamation League and former Homeland Security official who worked on programs to counter violent extremism, told TPM. “Insurgency has warzone implications, but it’s a more pervasive form of extremism that’s fully embraced conspiracies and violent extremism.”
The country has faced a rising tide of right-wing extremism and white nationalism for nearly thirty years, with high-water marks that include the Oklahoma City bombing. Despite that, the Trump administration disbanded the Department of Homeland Security unit responsible for tracking and coordinating domestic terrorist threats, and reports suggest it deprioritized tracking white nationalists while keeping its head in the sand in advance of Jan. 6.
But the events of the Capitol insurrection lent the movement backing Trump’s wildest conspiracies a more violent sheen, and a hallmark of violent insurgencies: an attempt to use violence to derail a legitimate process of government.
That came after Trump moved to radicalize a large proportion of his supporters by saying that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
Clarke, the Soufan Group researcher, did a study examining all 71 insurgencies that have developed since World War II, and identified at least some of the factors found in those movements existed in the U.S. today, including questions about whether the government was legitimate.
The distinction, however, is that in many cases abroad, insurgents are confronted with truly illegitimate governments that are corrupt to the core and resort to violent coercion to silence anyone who points it out or who challenges their right to rule.
“But Biden is not illegitimate,” Clarke said. “How do you assuage grievances that don’t exist?”
He added that while the U.S. was unlikely to see a full-blown insurgency in part thanks to the strength of federal law enforcement, multiple 1990s-style white nationalist holdout attacks could take place.
“Even if one percent of people radicalize towards violence, in aggregate the bubble has grown so much,” Clarke said. “You could be talking about a dozen acts of domestic terrorism per year — that’s once a month, and that’s overwhelming and distracting when you’re trying to govern a country.”
Finding a messenger
The Biden administration has already named countering the pro-Trump extremist movement as an essential priority. Any effort to combat the problem will involve rebuilding the offices at DHS which were depleted and shuttered under Trump.
But building a long-lasting way of bringing people back into reality will require messengers who can speak credibly to people who might be susceptible to joining the extremist groups, experts told TPM.
Part of the problem comes down to the nature of the movement, and part of it comes down to the lack of willingness among Republican political leaders like Trump and hangers-on like House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to admit that they lied about the election result.
Separately, conspiracy theories like QAnon which overlap with the budding pro-Trump extremist movement could only serve to inculcate people from reality.
“Sending a fact check isn’t going to do anything because this is an identity for them, you’re not just battling a belief, you’re battling entire worldviews,” said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories.
That makes it very difficult to identify people who have credibility in the far-right and who recognize the need to talk people back into reality.
“It’s a catch-22 where it’s someone who has to be so trusted by Trump supporters but also against Trump in a way,” Greer, the former DHS countering violent extremism official, said. “That’s a very difficult line to walk.”
Jonathan Schroden, director of CNA’s Center for Stability and Development and a former adviser to the military on insurgencies, told TPM that Trump himself would likely present a problem over the coming months.
“I don’t think he is going to go quietly into the night,” Schroden said. “I think he’s going to continue to try and grab the spotlight and foment whatever kind of adulation he can and with that there are likely to come increases in fomented violent instability.”
Schroden also saw the situation through the prism of a latent civil war in the Republican Party between establishment figures who no longer have use for Trump and those committed to the former President. The crowd on Jan. 6, egged on by Trump and his enablers in Congress, wanted Mike Pence’s blood, after all.
“If you start to see mainstream Republican leaders drifting away from him in the months to come as he no longer has much to offer them, theres a chance that they can steer the party back away from him,” Schroden said.
But to Clarke, the threat was too pervasive for any one strategy to work.
“Where are the MAGA zealots? They’re my neighbors, they’re your neighbors. It’s not like they live in one area,” Clarke said. “There’s this stereotype that these people are all rubes and rednecks; these are people from all socioeconomic backgrounds that drank the kool aid: they believe the election was stolen.”